Does Homework Help?

When I was in primary school, I had to do homework.  In fact, homework was a deal-breaker when my mother was choosing between the two schools available (it was Cornwall, there wasn't a lot of choice).  Her argument was that I would have homework in secondary school, so it was important to get used to it.  And I didn't even question it.  It wasn't onerous; Monday and Wednesday were English (10 spelling sentences on Monday; 10 comprehension questions on Wednesday); Tuesday and Thursday was maths (usually a textbook exercise or a blanket 'work on your SPMG books for 30 minutes); Fridays were homework-free for the weekend.  What's more, the homework only ever lasted until the Easter break.  The headmaster was very keen on children playing outside in the spring and summer months.  

Now, this was in the 80's (I started secondary school in '92), so it mostly pre-dated the National Curriculum.  I can remember a year 3 (then 1st year of Junior's) afternoon that was set aside entirely for 'bubble' colouring.  Where we drew an underwater scene and had to colour it by drawing circles instead of shading.  It actually looked pretty cool.  Come to think of it, one afternoon a week was set aside exclusively for colouring.  Like I said, pre-National Curriculum, so maybe the homework had to change to stay inline.  But I don't think that's the case.  I think homework changed to allow for the amount of time teachers are expected to spend on a given area.  I've been to various conferences on very specific subject areas and the take-home message is always 'you should spend at least an hour a week on...'  This has included things like:

multiplication tables, division skills, spelling, reading, basic compass skills (yup), free writing, free reading, discussion, debate, child-led personal projects, group reading, paired reading, mixed-year buddy reading, arithmetic, British values, International children's rights...

The list goes on and on and I don't think there is a single thing that doesn't deserve its place.  But time at school is finite, so some things are relegated to the 'do this at home' bench.  But why?  If it can't be covered in school then should it be covered at all?  Or, if it is so important that it has to be covered, then shouldn't something else give way?

Homework doesn't help

I have been a teacher for over a decade and spent the entire time in inner-city schools with above average mobility, free school meals, minority children... you get the idea.  They are schools where we are lucky if the children even turn up.  Often with these children, English is not the first language and is rarely spoken at home.  The parents try their best, don't get me wrong, but they just don't speak the language.  

Why are we sending work home?  What happens if the child gets stuck, or needs to ask a question?  Who are they going to ask?  Not their parents, they can't even read the instructions.  So what happens?  The child doesn't do the homework.  In some classes, they were punished with missing playtimes (never in my classroom; I didn't see the point).  

This is not a scenario exclusively of the ESL children either.  There are pleanty of English-speaking children and parents out there who don't have a clue how to complete the homework, especially if the homework in question is a downloaded worksheet from Hamilton or Twinkl (nothing against them; I've used them myself).  These worksheets are often not properly checked beforehand (because, let's be honest, who has the time?) and can be pretty tricky.  If a child is already unconfident with their maths, being unable to complete a maths investigation for homework is not going to improve their situation.  They can't ask their parents because their parents are just as scared of maths as they are.  So either they don't do it, or they spend hours getting it wrong.  These situations create an enormous amount of unfair pressure among families.  

On the flip-side, you have the children who excel and enjoy being pushed that little bit further.  The new curriculum dissuades us from simply giving them harder stuff (although that is often what the parents want), so we have to think of ways to deepen their understanding and push their education without sacrificing our lesson plans for the rest of the week.  I'm not saying this is impossible, I'm saying that it adds to our already full workload.

And the homework is rarely even marked because, again, who has the time?  I'll be honest, I never marked homework.  I knew how the children were doing, I had marked their work books.  The whole system is a train wreck, insisted upon by management (who never have to set or mark it themselves) because of a probably outdated policy that they now have to maintain because there's an Ofsted inspection due anytime between now and next century.  And heaven forfend we change the policy; what would the governors say?

It is a useless, archaic relic and it is high time we sent it away to 'live on a farm.'

Having said that...

I am one of those teachers who will allow children to email me (professional email only, of course) until 7pm with any questions about the day's work.  This is very useful as it allows them to ask questions about their homework and I have been able to either quickly write some advice, direct them to a YouTube video that will help, or even tell them not to worry about it because we'll go over it in class.  I've also encouraged the children to talk to each other about the homework.  In latter years, they have created homework WhatsApp groups to help each other.  What a bunch of losers, right?  I'm so proud of them!

The homework has been closely linked to the work begun in class and therefore is more of an independent assessment and we mark it together the next day.  This is a great system provided two things happen:
1) The child is in school to do the initial work and receive the homework;
2) The child does the homework and remembers to bring it in.

I was able to mitigate the first condition slightly by posting the homework on my website but the second is always a lottery.  However, it did allow for greater workflow and it engaged the children because we were able to structure lessons together based on how well everyone was getting on.

It was very successful for foundation subject homework as well as I could pose open-ended questions and the children could bring in their answers, which would form the bulk of my display.  One year we reached the point where the children were setting and answering their own questions.  It was great.

Is the traditional view of homework the problem?

For me, the problem isn't homework in and of itself.  It is the type of homework we traditionally set.  What is the point of giving children more maths problems to solve if you're only going to do more the next day?  There is no point.  Similarly, why set grammar or comprehension homework if you know you're going to focus on it for the week anyway?

I'm going to channel Simon Sinek here, if we're going to set homework, we need to start with why we're setting it.  If the answer is 'because we have to' then there is no point.  Get your union in, argue with the SLT, have it removed from the school policy.  Ofsted can't criticise it if it doesn't exist.

If, however, the answer is 'to give children ownership of their education; to encourage them to be active learners and engender a sense of metacogniscence within them' then I think we're on to something.  But we have to address how we think about homework.  It can no longer be a 'complete questions w - z' or a 're-write the passage without...'  It needs to be open-ended.  It needs to be exploratory.  It needs to be child-led.  It doesn't need to be marked.  In fact, I would argue that the most useful homework should never be marked.

I set the same homework every Friday for years, and I invite you to steal it and pass it off as your own.  I'll use Anglo-Saxon settlers as an example because I've bulied maths for too long already.  Here is it:

Watch this video on Anglo-Saxon homes.  Come to school on Monday with QUESTIONS!

That was it. I also used to create a 'wonderwall' for Science and History/Geography topic and encouraged the children to post any facts, questions, videos or pictures that they thought were worth exploring.  To make this even more fun, I added a password to the popplet (it was 'secret_handshake' but could be absolutely anything).  Within days the class had populated them with so many facts; had done so much research; I had a small group of children who had created a shared Google Slides about the planets that they wanted to present in assembly.  This was homework I had never set.  This was homework in its purest form.  It was work they had done at home because they wanted to do it; they had been inspired by their school-based learning and had taken it into their own hands.  For me, that's what homework should be.  

So, to conclude this rather bumpy ride of opinion, I think homework has a place, but that place has to have children at the centre.  If it is set merely to tick a box, it is never going to be worth anything, and if it isn't worth anything then we shouldn't waste time on it.  Keep it open-ended; keep it child-led; keep it marking-free.  I highly recommend the six-week project.  Set it on the first week of term and refuse to collect it in until the last week of term.  I used the eight areas of experience mentioned in Ian Gilbert's brilliant book Why Do I Need a Teacher When I've Got Google? (an absolute must-read) but only asked for four of them to be completed.  The children had a due date and could provide handwritten or digital examples.  If they did it all in the first week, they had five weeks off.  If they left it all until the last minute, they would have alot of work to do later.  It encouraged a sense of independence.  It encouraged the children to think about how they best approach tasks.  I sent letters home to parents encouraging them to join in.  I allowed collaborative work (they had to state who did what).

I got back so much!  I had to keep two days free at the end of term for the children to present their 'research project' and the marking was done by the class offering real-time feedbackWhat's more, the extra research filtered through into their school work, so I was reading mini-essays in geography that included information I hadn't taught.  It was fantastic.  It was easy.  It, for me, was how homework should be.

I would be very interested to know what your school's homework policy is.  Would they allow this sort of project-based approach?  Are they digital?  Do you even have to set homework?  Let me know in the comments below or @ me on Twitter.  Have a great day and remember to give yourself a break - you deserve it!

Carl Headley-Morris